“Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised,
and his greatness is unsearchable.”
Many Presbyterians and Reformed Baptists will agree: Chapters 2.1 of both the Westminster Confession and the 1689 London Baptist Confession contain some of the most breathtaking words drafted by our Puritan forefathers. Of course, we Baptists win out in the end, as the Second London Confession expands upon the original work of our baby-sprinkling brethren. They baked the cake, we added the icing—and everyone knows which is sweetest.
What’s in this confessional confection? None other than theology proper, the doctrine of God: a one-sentence, biblical catalog of His attributes and works. It’s the first in a three-paragraph effort to give an answer in small compass to the most important question ever posed: Who and what is God?
The reason so many love this paragraph so much isn’t because it’s poetic (though nothing reads so buttery-smooth as precious orthodoxy, am I right?). It’s not utterly beloved because it’s utterly complete—even those of us who are full subscriptionists must happily admit that. In this one-sentence paragraph, which quotes or references passages from at least 16 and as many as 24 different books of the Bible, we’re invited to open our mouths before the fire hose of Scripture and quaff the Lord’s greatness until we can drink no more. As the paragraph nearly drowns us in its torrent of divine attributions, our pitiful conceptions of God are washed away.
One of the Baptist alterations appears early in this paragraph, characterizing God as the One “whose essence cannot be comprehended by any but Himself…” As with many of the minor adjustments distinguishing the two Confessions, this one was added for clarity rather than content. We realize nothing of doctrinal significance is being invented here when we read later in the paragraph that God is “eternal, incomprehensible, almighty” – words original to Westminster.
So, why the change? Why the repetition of something already there? And why does it even matter?
A Big Word for a Big God
In their efforts to affirm the nature and character of God as He reveals Himself in His Word, the framers of our Confession were eager to emphasize the biblical doctrine of divine incomprehensibility. In adding to Westminster’s wording, they wanted to clarify that God isn’t incomprehensible by His very nature—as if He were some unknowable mystery, even to Himself—but He is relatively incomprehensible to creatures like us.
The term “incomprehensible” isn’t only a mouthful, it can also be a confusing term because the word’s meaning has shifted over the centuries. When we use this word theologically, we’re not saying God is incomprehensible in the modern sense that we’re unable to know anything about Him. Instead, we mean God is incomprehensible in the archaic use of the word: we cannot know Him comprehensively or exhaustively in His divine essence. To put it simply: God is infinite and we are finite, so our natural limitations can never contain a complete understanding of the limitless One.
As the framers of our Confession meticulously weighed their words, they wanted to make clear what they were doing. They weren’t describing what they thought God might be like, only to submit their unfounded musings to the great unknown. Nor were they attempting to add to Scripture or replace it, as is the everlasting outcry of our anti-creedal friends. Instead, with Bibles in hand, our forefathers affirmed that God has personally revealed Himself to us, setting His voice to paper through the inspiration of His written Word (2 Pet 1:21). God’s self-revelation is so sufficient, so certain, and so infallible (1689 1.1) that we can know Him truly through the Holy Spirit’s illumination (1 Cor 2:12). So truly, in fact, that mere men are capable of summarizing Scripture’s core doctrines in confessional statements per the Bible’s command “to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9).
God can be truly known through His Spirit-breathed Word (2 Tim 3:16). But, while we can know Him truly, we will never know God’s essence fully. As great as Chapter 2.1 of the Confession is, no sentence, paragraph, or volume could encompass all of the Holy One’s infinite majesty. Even Scripture itself gives us but a taste—enough to know God sufficiently for salvation, through Christ, and by the Spirit—but a taste nonetheless. If the world can’t contain the books that might have been written about Jesus’ three years of earthly ministry (John 21:25), how much less the very essence and being of God!
What’s this Doctrine Good For?
You may think this doctrine has little impact on our everyday lives, or that God’s incomprehensibility actually discourages us from seeking Him in His Word and prayer. But just the opposite is true.
For those who have been born of the Spirit, the truth of God’s infinite greatness doesn’t drive us to despair of ever knowing Him—it allures and entices us to gaze all the more on His glory in the revealed face of His Son (2 Cor 4:6). This doctrine reminds us that we will never graduate beyond our need for the ordinary means of grace and ongoing community in the local church. Despite our titles and theological degrees, no one can ever master divinity. Even the world-class scholar who has devoted his life to studying Paul’s epistles has much to gain from the young elder candidate’s first sermon from Galatians. The Spirit of God reveals the essence of God through the Word of God, and there will always be more of Him to behold.
Most fundamentally, the doctrine of divine incomprehensibility reminds us that God is so great, so infinite, and so uncontainable that His sovereign power and glory make a claim on every facet of who we are. As people bought at the price of Christ’s precious blood (1 Cor 6:19-20), the entirety of our lives should be given over to the mission of knowing God and making Him known. If you have experienced even the briefest glimpse of the One “who dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Tim 6:16), you’ll never want to look away, and you’ll lay down your life to let the whole world see.
And by the way, if you’ve ever wondered whether you might someday grow bored in the age to come, dwelling in unending paradise, this doctrine will rid you of that fear forever. Throughout eternity, there will always be more of God to marvel at, more of His immeasurable grace to see (Eph 2:7). This doctrine can’t leave you yawning—it should give you goosebumps.
When at last we gaze directly upon the infinite wonders of our God and King, clothed with the perfect righteousness of Christ and surrounded by the full number of His redeemed, our eyes will endlessly drink their fill of the One who made us for Himself. As it dawns unceasingly upon us just how marvelous is our God and how great is His salvation, our awe-opened mouths will forever be filled with that grand doxology of Romans 11:33-36:
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
‘For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?’
‘Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?’
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”
Tim (@TimGiovanetto) is a writer living in Louisville, Kentucky. He received his MA in Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is pursuing a second MA in Biblical Counseling at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.